On Friday night, the ongoing feud between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of Minor League Baseball took an ugly turn. MiLB published a four-page statement seeking to correct the public record about their willingness to negotiate with MLB, which was responded to with a 191-word threat that could forever alter the landscape of professional baseball.
“If the National Association has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very significant issues with the current system at the bargaining table,” MLB’s statement reads. “Otherwise, MLB Clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement.”
Since MLB essentially has all of the leverage in these negotiations, they are threatening to walk away if they don’t get their way – much in the same way a child might threaten to take their ball and go home. The strangest part is that MLB is acting this way in pursuing what would essentially be a lose-lose situation.
The most significant of the issues at the bargaining table – and what seems to be a non-starter for MiLB – is the proposed elimination of 42 affiliated teams. This encompasses mostly Rookie-Level and Short Season teams below Class A. For the Mets, the implications are potentially losing the Kingsport Mets and Binghamton Rumble Ponies, two teams that appear on the so-called “hit list,” and seeing the Brooklyn Cyclones jump to Double-A. MLB has denied the accuracy of the publicly-leaked list.
What we do know is that players who don’t fit somewhere on the remaining rosters will be released. Does that mean a player like Jeff McNeil, who was 26 and still in Double-A before he broke out might get cut in the future? Maybe, maybe not, but many players will be cut or never even get a chance. In talking of getting rid of these teams, you’re talking about harming players, front office staff, fans and communities. The collateral damage of this plan is massive.
To be against the elimination of affiliated baseball in these 42 communities is not to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns that MLB has. There is something positive to be said for making leagues realigned to be more geographically compact, and many facilities at the Rookie level could use significant modern upgrades. But at least according to its statement released Friday, MiLB has expressed a willingness to negotiate those points.
MLB contends that eliminating affiliations from 42 teams would not be killing baseball in those communities, because they would have those teams form an independent “Dream League” where professional baseball would continue. But that is like asserting that you are not killing a person by removing them from life support. Affiliations, and not having to bear the burden of player payroll, currently the responsibility of the MLB club, are what keep many of the clubs on the “hit list” in business.
In an interview with Michael Silverman of The Boston Globe,Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem apparently felt otherwise, sharing thoughts he gathered from speaking with independent leagues:
“They look at the minor league owners saying, ‘You’re killing baseball if the owners can’t pay for their players,’ and they’re saying, ‘That’s absolutely not true,’ they’re telling me, some of these teams, they’ll take them and they’ll make it work in their cities,” said Halem.
“They gave me lists of which ones they want. So it’s just a little disingenuous from the minor league side to say, ‘Baseball is leaving the cities.’ OK, maybe if we went through with this plan affiliated baseball may leave, but baseball will be there.
“All our fan polling, and we do a lot of fan polling, is fans in these minor league cities for the most part do not go to games because the affiliate happens to be affiliated with the Texas Rangers or the Blue Jays. They go because it’s low-cost entertainment.”
This is at best an outright lie and at least a vicious attempt to undermine the current minor league system.
I don’t know what independent league personnel MLB has been talking to, nor will I pretend to, but whomever said what Halem is repeating absolutely knows that they are lying. Independent baseball has been characterized by a complete lack of stability outside of a select few flagship franchises. The underlying reason for that has been teams not being able to pay their bills because of the payroll burden they bear.
Since its founding in 1998, the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball has been a successful independent league because its teams are in gigantic markets – Long Island Ducks in Suffolk County play in the #20 market in the nation, and the Somerset (NJ) Patriots draw from a market that would be the 6th-largest MiLB market, for example.
Despite its success, the Atlantic League has had significant struggles in keeping teams afloat, with the Camden Riversharks, Bridgeport Bluefish and New Britain Bees all folding since 2015. Only one team in the eight-team league (Somerset) averaged more than 5,000 fans per game in 2019, while 39 (roughly 1 in 4) affiliated teams eclipsed that mark. For MLB’s claim that “affiliation doesn’t matter” when it comes to attendance, across the board independent teams draw fewer fans per game than affiliated teams do in roughly equal (and in some cases significantly larger) market sizes.
The MiLB teams on the chopping block don’t play in major metropolitan areas. They play in places like Montana, Utah, eastern Tennessee, West Virginia and Vermont. They don’t have the benefits of a large market, and therefore more potential fans and higher sponsorship rates. Even with those things it is incredibly hard to be successful, and without it is almost impossible.
A better comparison market-wise to the teams on the cut list is the Frontier League, which since its founding in 1993 has 23 franchises playing in 42 different locations. Since the end of the 2018 season the Traverse City Beach Bums, Normal Corn Belters, and River City Rascals have all ceased operations as professional baseball clubs, too burdened by payroll costs to persist. The league was hemorrhaging teams so fast that it had to merge with the Canadian-American Association for the start of the 2020 season. The Ottawa Champions, formerly of the Can-Am, were not invited to the new league and recently had their stadium lease terminated by the city for failure to pay. They are a team without a league and a home.
Even the American Association, which operates in larger markets than the Frontier League, has seen tremendous turnover in the last half of the decade. Teams in Joplin (MO) and Laredo (TX) have folded while Amarillo and Grand Prairie were forced to merge to form one team. That is to say nothing of the disaster that was the one-and-done year in 2017 for the Salina Stockade, whose trials were profiled by Ben Lindbergh in an article for The Ringer, and the Kansas City T-Bones, who were evicted from their stadium in August.
Since 2015, only two full-season affiliated teams are defunct: The High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze formerly of the California League. They were replaced with two teams in the Carolina League. There have been a handful of teams to re-locate, but a franchise completely shutting down is virtually unheard of in affiliated ball and happens frequently in indy ball. As MiLB’s statement notes, the independent model does not work except in a small handful of markets where it works fine.
Markets like Binghamton and Kingsport are much closer in size and scope to Normal, Illinois than they are to Suffolk County and Sugar Land, Texas. The “Dream League” would be much closer in market size to the Frontier League and American Association, and it assuredly would encounter the same financial problems. It is foolish to believe that professional baseball is viable long-term in a majority of those cities set to lose affiliations under MLB’s proposed plan. Killing professional baseball in cities with long and rich traditions is a sure way to alienate your fan base and cut off future generations from becoming fans.
Whether it wants to admit it or not, MLB’s proposed plan would effectively kill professional baseball in all but maybe a handful of the proposed “cut list” cities. And of course nothing is final. Hopefully a new Professional Baseball Agreement can be reached in which necessary changes are made but also the teams are saved from extinction.